It’s getting dark as I sit at the table in my flat in Luxembourg, A4 manuscript of Amsterdam Rampant neatly piled in front of me, all the edges lined up straight. But instead of getting the biro out and re-reading the novel one last time, my mind wanders and I find myself thinking about how the novel has changed over the years.
Disraeli said: “When I want to read a novel, I write one.” For me, this sums up not only a basic truth of fiction writing – the simple fact that a writer believes in his/her project’s readability – but it also neatly captures the vanity of the novelist. There is a real danger that in writing the type of novel we want to read, we end up writing a novel that not many other people want to read.
When I finished writing Distillery Boys (as the novel was then called) back in early 2010, it was around 100k words long. This final draft of Amsterdam Rampant is just over 60k words long. So what happened to the other 40k words?
The truth is that I learnt to edit – the hard way. I had written a novel I wanted to read – a sprawling novel, with many subplots and blind alleys, a novel that was as much about atmosphere as it was about story. My agent was more or less in the same camp as me, but once we started to send the novel out to publishers, the feedback focused on the novel’s promise but also its need to be streamlined. At first I thought this was just a symptom of the age we live in – where entertainment should be delivered at lightning speed, neatly packaged with no rough edges – but then I came to reluctantly agree that it needed work. The early version was, in the words of one publisher, ‘flabby.’
A writer pal of mine called Sean McNulty has a good way of putting it. He describes the process of editing a novel as ‘getting it down to fighting weight.’ I like this boxing metaphor – that to truly compete in the rough and tumble world of publishing, a novel should be lean, toned, and quick on its feet.
So how did I get Amsterdam Rampant down to fighting weight?
Well, first came the easy part. Like many writers I was overly fond of metaphors and similes. One publisher told me “I’ll give you one metaphor or simile per chapter” before his patience ran out. So that was the first step – strip out all the unnecessary imagery. It did feel a bit like ripping the fittings out of a cathedral (couldn’t resist a simile there!) but once it’s done, there is a feeling of relief. No more will the reader’s eye snag on a metaphor that’s too laboured. Instead the cathedral is now a Presbyterian kirk – functional with clean lines, no distractions from the purpose of the structure.
Next I eliminated the other voices in the novel. This was painful to do. I had written various chapters told from the perspective of other characters – a brothel-owning gangster, two of his heavies, a teenage Russian girl – which I felt added texture to the story and also the feeling of place. It’s a technique I always enjoyed reading in fiction (Trainspotting, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and A Visit from the Goon Squad come to mind) but it is a risky approach. While I had managed to neatly dovetail the various storylines into a satisfying conclusion – and one that delivered justice to the novel’s villains – the words of one reader stayed with me. “A publisher will try to market this as crime,” he told me. “And it’s not a crime novel.” So, with much regret, I ripped out these chapters. It hurt, but after the pain faded, it did feel better. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about a novelist’s need to “ruthlessly sacrifice the sideshows” and it was something I had to do.
The final round of surgery was the hardest. The main character, Fin, works as a marketer for Cloudburn single malt whisky (a fictional brand). I had written three chapters about the history of Cloudburn that bookended each section of the novel. These three chapters combined into a gothic novella which also fed into the twist at the end of the book, telling the story of the original distillery owners, two brothers, and their feud over twenty years at the beginning of the twentieth century. The storyline started with the construction of the distillery in a fairy glen (to the horror of the superstitious locals) and the ensuing sequence of sinister events which came to be seen as a fairies’ curse, encompassing the disappearance of the distillery owners’ sons, the first world war’s effects on the local community, and the rise and fall of the Cloudburn business.
Anyway, much as I loved it – and some other readers loved it too – publishers generally gave the feedback that this storyline didn’t belong in a novel about Amsterdam. So out it went.
Looking back, all of these changes were completely necessary. The pace of the novel before was meandering; now it rattles along at breakneck speed. Previously, the different voices were difficult to co-ordinate and didn’t always work together in harmony; now there is one compelling voice. The almost-final novel is a bantam-weight 60k words, lean and mean. I pick it up, holding this sheaf of A4 between fingers and thumbs, and feel the weight of several years’ work light in my hands.
One last edit, and by the end of January Amsterdam Rampant will be in the ring, ready to fight with the heavyweights.